In 1737 he was appointed captain of the 60-gun Centurion and sent on patrol to West Africa and the Caribbean. It was in this ship that he circumnavigated the globe (1740-1744) during the war with Spain. Ordered to attack the Pacific coast of Spanish South America, the expedition almost ended in disaster when half of Anson’s squadron disappeared as it encountered ‘huge deep, hollow seas’ during the passage around Cape Horn. Despite further heavy losses, Anson was able to carry out a limited number of raids against coastal targets, but his capture of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga off the Philippines was a real victory that secured his reputation (and wealth).
On his return Anson, welcomed as a national hero, soon revealed his political ambitions: he joined the opposition Whigs, was elected MP for Hedon and appointed to the Admiralty Board. Although he entered the Board while still a captain, he secured rapid promotion to Rear-Admiral, Vice-Admiral and then Admiral of the Fleet. Anson returned to sea in command of the Western Squadron in 1746-1747 and his notable victory against the French at the Battle of Cape Finisterre was a rare example of a British naval success after seven years of war. Anson, who was then raised to the peerage, returned to the Admiralty Board, working with the Duke of Bedford as First Lord and with Lord Sandwich on a series of naval reforms, which included ending political interference in courts-martial, introducing compulsory retirement, innovations in ship design and the formation of the Royal Marines under Admiralty control.
In 1751, Anson succeeded Lord Sandwich as First Lord of the Admiralty and served until his death in 1762 (except for one brief interruption in 1756-1757 following the loss of Minorca). The reform program continued, but his main priority on returning to office (and the Cabinet) in the Pitt-Newcastle coalition was the Seven Years War: its strategic direction, planning operations and preparing naval forces. Although he died shortly before the conflict ended, Pitt later said of Anson: ‘to his wisdom, to his experience the nation owes the glorious success of the last war.’ Horace Walpole inevitably took a more critical view: ‘Lord Anson was reserved and proud, and so ignorant of the world, that Sir Charles Williams said he had been round it, but never in it.’
Anson’s earlier biographers have focused on the story of the circumnavigation, which has largely defined his reputation, as well as his victories at sea. However, other aspects of his career, particularly his roles as a naval reformer and wartime strategist, deserve to be given greater weight in reassessing his position as a leading figure in British naval history. As one commentator has pointed out, ‘there is an increasing cultural valuation of administrative skills that allows an Anson to be remembered in the same arena with, but still distinctly from, a Nelson. Whereas Horatio Nelson is certainly the most well-known and enduring example of a naval hero, others followed different paths to success during their lifetimes.’